Sunday, July 10, 2011

"The Devil Knows Latin"

Don't you just love that quote from Monsignor Ronald Knox? You know, the one made famous by E. Christian Kopff in his delightful book, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition(2001):
Ronald Knox, a wise and witty Catholic priest, when asked to perform a baptism in the vernacular, responded with what his biographer Evelyn Waugh described as “uncharacteristic acerbity”: “The baby does not understand English and the Devil knows Latin” (Kopff xv).
The background story, of course, is that a minor exorcism is part of the traditional Catholic baptismal ritual, involving not only holy water, but exorcised salt and holy chrism oil. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. AD 313 – 386) gives a detailed description of baptismal exorcism (in Procatechesis 14). Hence Msgr. Knox's statement: "The Devil Knows Latin."

Most of Kopff's message about the joys of Latin and importance of classical education in this book will be greeted by your average American run-of-the-shopping-mall philistines with about as much joy as an invitation to attend the Traditional Latin Mass. But never mind the philistines, what matters is whether the claim is true. I remember reading some biographies of 19th-century and early 20th-century British writers about ten years after I began teaching college, and feeling sorely deprived educationally, even with a doctorate in hand. These guys were studying Greek and Latin and reading Virgil's Aeneid and Plutarch's Lives in the original when they were junior high school age.

It may well be true that we don't need to know Latin or have a classical education to be saints; but it may not only help us stave off the barbarous philistinism of our blithely high-tech yet historically oblivious new dark age, but may even help us along the path to sanctity if it happened to help us discover the abundant legacy of the Church's saints, resources for growth in holiness, and rich spiritual heritage of Mater Ecclesia. I would even argue that a classical education has considerable value in itself as a protoevangelium or praeparatio evangelium. Certainly St. Augustine found it so, who, in his Confessions, attests to the help provided him by the Neo-Platonists in overcoming the obstacles to faith produced by his earlier Manichaeism. Further still, Plato's dialogues provide some of the finest rebuttals of the kind of sophomoric relativism that thrives in the postmodernist environments around most contemporary universities. You can't be a relativist and be open to the Gospel.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism

Christopher Oleson reviews Thaddeus Kozinski, The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It

To the typical inhabitant of a modern liberal democracy, the title of Thaddeus Kozinski's intriguing new book will probably sound a little puzzling, inasmuch as, within contemporary democractic culture, religious pluralism is not generally understood to be a "political problem." On the contrary, for the democratic soul, religious pluralism seems to be more a positive good, something to be protected and celebrated, rather than "solved" or overcome. One's religious commitments would have to be "extreme" and thus "anti-democratic" to take issue with liberalism's positive affirmation of religious diversity, for it is one of democratic modernity's greatest achievements to have crafted institutional arrangements that allow for the easy co-existence of various religious groups both with one another and with the overarching liberal political order.

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Secular democratic modernity can only claim not to have a religious pluralism problem because it has already implicitly solved this problem by subtly emasculating traditional religious identity

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One of the many insights of Thaddeus Kozinski's valuable contribution to the on-going conversation about the relationship between Faith and politics is to articulate with precision how secular democratic modernity can only claim not to have a religious pluralism problem because it has already implicitly solved this problem by subtly emasculating traditional religious identity and establishing, under the false veil of political neutrality, institutional arrangements charged with theological and metaphysical significance.

Thus, only by becoming enculturated to re-interpret religious belief in such a way that it can have no substantive implications for the social and political order, and correspondingly, by becoming miseducated to not notice the tacit establishment of a quite partisan sense of the good, freedom, and selfhood, do the citizens of secular democracies think that they have a neutral social order that need not view religious pluralism as politically problematic. For those whose religious creed is not merely an emotional accoutrement, this situation is obviously deeply troublesome, for the logic of secular liberalism, as Kozinski makes clear, would force the believer to treat his Faith commitments as merely therapeutic preferences of an autonomous self.

Clarifying this situation and working towards articulating a solution to it which is at once both honest about its principles, coherent in working them out, and politically expressive of the truth and ultimate happiness of man is the task that Kozinski sets himself in his book. He does this by successively engaging the thought of three influential and progressively illuminating political philosophers. John Rawls, Jacques Maritain, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Rawls serves as the quintessential philosophical voice of secular democratic liberalism, Maritain as the exponent of a Catholic hybridization of Thomistic political philosophy and modern democratic ideals, and MacIntyre as the most penetrating philosophical critic of liberal modernity and advocate of a local Thomistic politics of the common good against the bureaucratic nation-state.

Of the three, Kozinski is by far the most sympathetic to MacIntyre. Nevertheless, even his proposal falls short in Kozinski's eyes, for MacIntyre's vision of small communities of virtue does not quite attain to the level of truly political existence, remaining as it does, Kozinski claims, too local in its aspirations. More importantly for Kozinski, MacIntyre's thought problematically remains at the level of mere philosophy. Studiously avoiding the role of theologian, MacIntyre deprives himself of the resources of political theology, and thereby fails to affirm the necessity of a public recognition of divine revelation and Magisterial teaching as the most propitious conditions for a stable and morally healthy political state. As Kozinski's subtitle indicates, philosophy as such can offer little or no light on how to move a community of seriously diverse worldviews to a unified political order of virtue and human happiness. Only the eventual achievement of a confessionally Catholic state, Kozinski concludes, can overcome the limitations of political philosophy in general, and liberal modernity in particular.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Liturgy and personality

I remember reading somewhere how Dietrich von Hildebrand, after converting to the Catholic Faith, used to run enthusiastically down the street, coattails flying, to be on time for daily Mass. He loved everything about his newfound religion. As much as anything else, he loved its liturgy.

In fact, he even wrote a book entitled Liturgy and Personality,about the “healing power of formal prayer” -- the power of liturgy to profoundly form and positively shape personality. Far from furnishing us with mere training wheels until we "mature" into more personal and spontaneous prayers "from the heart," formal liturgical prayer is actually the superior form of prayer, according to von Hildebrand. The key is to enter into the prayer of the Church, to make it one's own, to "pray the Mass," as St. Pope Pius X used to say, and to live it.

Formal liturgy -- so staid and “impersonal,” and even “oppressive” in the eyes of so many today -- is actually set forth in its proper meaning as the “source and summit” of our prayer life as Catholics, the place where we encounter our Lord and our God, see where we belong in His Kingdom and, in the process, learn who we are meant to be. In coming to know our God through the Church's liturgy, we come to know ourselves.

An Editor’s note in the latest edition of the book states that "Liturgy and Personality concerns the essence of the liturgy rather than the details of any particular liturgy,” and so urges the reader “to use von Hildebrand’s numerous liturgical examples to discover the gist of his arguments demonstrating the personality-forming power of the Liturgy,” so that these points can then “be related, where appropriate, to comparable elements in today’s Liturgy.”

It is no small point, however, that Liturgy and Personality was first published in 1932 in German: the Mass von Hildebrand loved, and through which he encountered the Lord, was the traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Rite -- the one most Catholics and others today would experience as something prima facie alien, if not alienating, including its "impersonal" Latin and the priest's "back turned to the people." This is the Mass -- this one -- to which he would fly down the street with his open coat billowing behind him!

It's enough to make any sane person wonder, is it not? But then, what is sanity, liturgically speaking? Is it the product of liturgical committees? Remember the joke about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with the terrorist.

First and foremost, von Hildebrand was a Catholic philosopher, and his books on ethics and value-theory are substantial and profound. In the latter half of his life, however, after moving to the United States and after the Second World War, he increasingly turned the attention of his formidable mind to matters of the Church. For him, these were matters of the heart; and he was especially concerned with developments in the Church in the modern post-war world. Many of these developments he found troubling -- modernism, secularism, relativism, dissent, immorality -- and, above all, some of the experiments and innovations he lived to see in the Church's sacred liturgy.